Diplomacy and Animal Gift-Giving: a 20th Century Evolution

Pandas (Often used as diplomatic gifts by the Chinese government)

Both in the past and present, the importance of gift-giving within diplomacy is a reflection of the highly personal nature of the field. When power and access is held by a few individuals, cordial and intimate displays of respect make all the difference. Nowhere is this clearer than the earliest examples of animal gift-giving. Foreign powers presented pharaohs, emperors, and kings with living embodiments of the wonders of the known world and in doing so gained the favour of those who possessed absolute authority. This use of animals within diplomacy began to change, however, with the emergence of zoos during the Victorian period. Suddenly, wildlife collections were no longer a luxury possessed by a few elites, they were readily accessible and became reminders of the strength and spans of empires. National zoos became a convenient way to gain widespread public favour, beneficial to both the giving and receiving governments. As monarchies transitioned to democracies, animals became important figures in public diplomatic strategy. Colonised peoples bestowed their imperial overseers with elephants, tigers, and lions, in the hopes of capturing the imagination and attention of not only officials, but the European people more broadly. Within the post-colonial decades that followed, the exchanging of animals became more than a nicety, as the Western community’s desire to see and possess the fauna of Africa and Asia drove a wildlife economy that placed power within the hands of developing nations. By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, China has demonstrated that as a nation grows in power, its use of animal gifts must change to reflect its developing role upon the world stage.

The tradition of animal diplomatic exchanges reaches back to the very beginnings of formulated foreign policy. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs were often gifted giraffes from neighbouring Nubia, in the hopes of fostering positive relations and mutually beneficial trade.[1] As Egypt sank in global dominance over the coming centuries, it reversed this strategy and began sending African curiosities to Greece and the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar brought the first giraffe to Europe in 48 BCE, and many believe that it was a personal gift from Cleopatra.[2] This tradition extended well into the Renaissance, with Sultan Qaitbay of Egypt bestowing Lorenzo de’ Medici with a giraffe in the fifteenth century, hoping to secure Florentine finances.[3] Lorenzo was more than happy to accommodate the creature as he viewed it as an important reminder of his influence abroad.[4] This was famously followed by Ferdinando de’ Medici in the sixteenth century who amassed a large, private collection of African and Asian wildlife, most of which were “diplomatic gifts.”[5] The common thread between all of these accounts is the highly private nature of these exchanges, they were from one individual to another, a reflection of the centralised nature of power. Once the animals were received, they were little more than a novelty, held in private estates well away from the public eye. Despite the rarity of a giraffe in Europe, Julius Caesar placed his in an arena where it was killed by lions.[6] While animals were treasured pawns in the foreign relations game, their significance was no different than that of any other diplomatic gift. This reality would change, however, as they became viewed as public property and displayed within zoos.

The Victorian period within Britain and the rest of Europe saw the rise of menageries and wildlife parks, often directly curated by the state. In the eyes of the everyday man, these public attractions became embodiments of the nation, reflecting the boundaries of expedition and colonisation. This reality was enforced by the stringent belief in social Darwinism, which helped to foster the civilising mission ideology. In essence, in order for Europeans to justify imperialism, they needed to view the colonised as inherently less-than and easily dominated. As historian John M. Mackenzie states: social Darwinism “provided an ideological justification for colonial war and conquest”.[7] The animals placed within zoos became embodiments of their native regions and to a large degree the colonised peoples who lived there. “The maintenance and study of captive wild animals [became] simultaneous emblems of human mastery over the natural world and of [European] dominion over remote territories.”[8] As this perception grew in prevalence, animals increased in diplomatic value, especially when willingly passed from a colony to a coloniser. For this reason, the exchanging of wildlife became an important part of public diplomacy or a diplomacy directed at the general populace of a country, that “aims to shape perceptions in a way which is favourable to the initiating country, although rarely tied to specific foreign relations goals.”[9] Two examples of this are the large animal collections presented to London Zoo in 1875 from India and 1906 from Nepal.[10] By the early twentieth century, the practice of animal diplomatic exchanges had been thoroughly standardised.

No case greater demonstrates the colonial underpinnings of wildlife gifts more than the 1943 Platypus Project. At the height of the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent an telegram to Australian Prime Minister John Curtain asking for six live platypuses to be sent to Britain. Shocked by the request, Curtain was quick to refuse, citing Australia’s strict laws protecting native fauna and reminding Churchill that the Australians were otherwise preoccupied with the war in the Pacific.[11] Unwavering, Churchill instead requested that he be sent a single platypus and with hesitance, the Australians agreed.[12] Tragically, despite a lengthy preparation period, the platypus, appropriately named Winston, was killed aboard the ship transporting him when it was struck by a German U boat.[13] While the incident appears ridiculous, it is fact a reflection of the importance placed upon these wildlife exchanges.

Churchill’s desire for the platypus served two potential functions. Most simplistically, the platypus was highly rare, native only to Australia and a wonder of the natural world due to its status as an egg laying mammal, it had the potential to become a popular attraction. Zoo attendance during the Second World War in London increased, despite the blitz and rationing, and the institution remained a key representation of the relationship between the state and the British people.[14] If Churchill could bring an animal rarely kept in captivity to the zoo, it would be a reminder of Britain’s enduring strength. There is also evidence that the zoo and the BBC were working together to encourage school children to send worms to feed the platypus, most likely hoping to boost morale.[15] The creature would also serve as a reminder of the relationship between Britain and Australia, which had become strained due to the two-theatre war.

Within this same sphere of thinking, historian Natalie Lawrence proposes a more radical rationale to the request, believing it to be the beginning of an exchanging of favours. Gifting within diplomacy has always placed a burden of reciprocation upon the recipient. Francisco de’ Medici “gave six and a half times more material objects than he received” reflecting his desire to never be indebted in another person.[16] During the early years of the war, Australia had begun to question their participation in the commonwealth. Frustrated that they had not been permitted to join the war council and lacking sufficient support from the British navy and air force, Australian officials indicated they would seek support elsewhere.[17] Prime Minister Curtain publicly stated in 1942 that Australia would turn to the United States, and “the Anglo-Australian relationship was never to be the same again.”[18] Churchill, a fervent supporter of empire, would consider a loss of Australia unthinkable and looked for ways to reinforce their traditional bonds. According to Lawrence, the debt created by the complexity of the platypus project was the excuse Churchill needed to grant Australia’s wishes without upsetting other past settler colonies.[19] This view may be true, as Churchill would grant Australia a seat on the war council, and later sent the requested war ships and planes.[20] However, historians Nancy Cushing and Kevin Markwell counter this argument by stating the number of planes and ships sent were well below the number requested.[21] Additionally, it may be overly simplistic to conclude that the mere exchanging of a platypus would lead to such a radical alteration of war strategy. Despite this, it is clear Churchill valued the creature, keeping a stuffed specimen on his desk for the duration of the war, so the project certainly fostered a sense of goodwill between the prime ministers.

While the platypus project is a clear reminder of the imperial exchanges that pre-date it, the post-colonial period changed the dynamic of these interactions. Tanzania, which became an independent country 1961, was eager to establish itself on the world stage. In 1964, the government released the Arusha declaration, a left-leaning policy that would nationalise industries and promote Pan-Africanism. In the midst of the Cold War, this left Tanzania without any allies in the West and the nation became frantic for partners. In this desperation, Tanzania turned to its wildlife. Since the Victorian period, zoos had grown in commonality and popularity, and the desire of the public became a driving factor in animal acquisition. Wild animals were no longer proof of colonisation but wonders in their own right. As Elizabeth Garland states: “the role of African animals in (Western) imaginary has become so naturalized, so unremarkable… that animals like lions and hippos have become part of the natural symbolic repertoire of people around the world, their existence taken for granted as the birth right of people everywhere.”[22] This dynamic placed tremendous power in the hands of the gifting nation, as they now possessed a highly desirable commodity. Tanzania was quick to take advantage of this, most evident in the remarks of President Julius Nyerere: “I believe after diamonds, wild animals will provide Tanzania its greatest source of income, thousands of Americans and Europeans have the strange urge to see these animals.”[23] Over the decades, Tanzania would trade away species to North Korea, Japan, Yugoslavia, and Sweden in order to secure highly beneficial trade and development agreements.[24]

In response to the recognition of a species’ innate value, developing nations encouraged the creation of a wildlife economy. An early participant of this was China. Under Mao, China gave away their giant pandas to the Soviet Union, North Korea, and most significantly the United States. These gifts encouraged good relations and the continuance of trade. However, soon China began to realise the valuable monopoly they had on their hands. Unlike Tanzania, which had to compete with other African nations, China was the only country to have giant pandas and the world was eager to see them. When pandas were sent to Washington DC in 1972, thousands of people waiting in the rain to catch a glimpse of them and they would become the mascot of the World Wildlife Fund.[25] When the panda was declared critically endangered in 1984, China changed its strategy and the country entered “phase 2” of panda diplomacy.[26] With the death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping, China embraced a “capitalist lease model” where recipient nations had to pay an annual maintenance and cub fee, and recognise China’s complete and unalienable ownership of the pandas and their cubs.[27] This policy change was closely followed by the economic ascension of China, and reflected the budding nations confidence in itself.[28]

Now in the 21st Century, Chinese strategy has changed again. adjusting to its role as a supreme power, the country has begun using its pandas as a retroactive reward system. After China became frustrated with Norway for rewarding a Nobel prize to a Chinese dissident, it needed a new fish supplier and it turned its attention toward Scotland.[29] Once a trade deal was finalised, two pandas were sent to the Edinburgh Zoo.[30] While China still demands yearly payment for the bears, it has begun using its pandas more like diplomats than economic resources, sending them to allied countries and withdrawing them when relations become strained. After president Obama met with the Dalai Lama and finalised an arms agreement with Taiwan, two pandas were recalled from the United States.[31] As China has grown in power, its use of pandas has adjusted accordingly. These animal gifts are no longer favours or niceties, but strategic representations of the relationship between China and other nations.

While the prevalence of animal gift-giving within diplomacy remains unchanged, the symbolism and significance of these exchanges evolved during the 20th Century due to the modernisation of states and political systems, fluctuations in the international balance of power, and changes in the conceptualisation of animal ownership. China has efficiently adapted to this system and incorporated it into its larger political and economic goals making the giant panda more than a mere attempt at public diplomacy. In theory, this has made animal diplomatic gifts far more valuable than they ever were before, becoming a distinct and notable phenomenon.

[1] Stuart Tyson Smith, “Nubia and Egypt: Interaction, acculturation, and secondary state formation from the third to first millennium BC.” in Studies in Culture Contact: Interaction, Culture Change, and Archaeology 25 (1998), p 257.

[2] Dale Peterson and Karl Ammann. Giraffe Reflections (University of California, 2013). p. 33

[3] Marina Belozerskaya, The Medici Giraffe: and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power (Boston, 2006).

[4] Belozerskaya, The Medici Giraffe.

[5] Suzanne B. Butters, “The Uses and Abuses of Gifts in the World of Ferdinando De’ Medici (1549–1609)”, Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance 11, (2007), pp 243–354.

[6] Peterson and Ammann. Giraffe Reflections, p. 33.

[7] John M. Mackenzie, Imperialism and Popular Culture. (Manchester, 1986), p. 3.

[8] Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: the English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. (Harvard, 2005), p. 205–6.

[9] Nancy Cushing, and Kevin Markwell, “Platypus Diplomacy: Animal Gifts in International Relations” Journal of Australian Studies33, no. 3 (2009), pp. 255–271.

[10] Natalie Lawrence, “The Prime Minister and the Platypus: A Paradox Goes to War” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biol & Biomed Sci 43, no. 1 (2012), pp 290–297.

[11] Lawrence, “The Prime Minister and the Platypus “ pp 290–297.

[12] Cushing, and Markwell, “Platypus Diplomacy” pp. 255–271.

[13] Telegram from WSC to Dr Herbert Evatt informing him that the Platypus he sent him has died on its journey to England CHAR 20/124/114. The Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge. Churchill Archive.

[14] Lawrence, “The Prime Minister and the Platypus “ pp 290–297.

[15] Zoological Society of London: ZSL Council, (1930–1973), ZSL Council minutes. Vol. XXXII, GB 0814 ZDAA. London: Zoological Society of London Archives.

[16] Butters, “The Uses and Abuses of Gifts” pp 243–354.

[17] Lawrence, “The Prime Minister and the Platypus “ pp 290–297.

[18] Brian Gardner, Churchill in His Time: a Study in a Reputation 1939–1945. (Methuen, 1968), p. 142.

[19] Lawrence, “The Prime Minister and the Platypus “ pp 290–297.

[20] Lawrence, “The Prime Minister and the Platypus “ pp 290–297.

[21] Cushing, and Markwell, “Platypus Diplomacy” pp. 255–271.

[22] Elizabeth Garland, “The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa.” African Studies Review 51, no. 3, (2008), pp 51–74.

[23] Julie M. Weiskopf, “Socialism on Safari: Wildlife and Nation-Building in Postcolonial Tanzania, 1961–77.” Journal of African History 56, no. 3, (2015), pp. 429–447.

[24] Weiskopf, “Socialism on Safari”, pp. 429–447.

[25] Alexander Burns, “When Ling-Ling and Hsing Hsing Arrived in the U.S.” The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017.

[26] Kathleen Buckingham, et al. “Environmental Reviews and Case Studies: Diplomats and Refugees: Panda Diplomacy, Soft ‘Cuddly’ Power, and the New Trajectory in Panda Conservation”, Environmental Practice 15, no. 3, (2013), pp 262–270.

[27] Buckingham, et al. “Panda Diplomacy”, pp 262–270

[28] Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Rise of China”, Foreign Affairs 72, no. 5, (1993), pp. 59–74.

[29] Buckingham, et al. “Panda Diplomacy”, pp 262–270

[30] Buckingham, et al. “Panda Diplomacy”, pp 262–270

[31] Dara Lind, “Why US-Born Panda Bao Bao Is Leaving for China: Panda Diplomacy, Explained.” Vox.com, Vox Media, 21 Feb. 2017.



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Anne Marie Kingsland

Anne Marie Kingsland

A technical writer venturing into UX and content design. Enjoys history, literature, art, and analysis.